the_newsbeagle writes: Harvard scientists have invented a nifty lab robot that can smoke 10 cigarettes at a time, lighting up for the benefit of medical research on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The bot channels smoke into a "lung on a chip," a small device with microfluidic channels lined by human lung cells. This setup enables researchers to realistically replicate the action of taking regular pulls from a cigarette, and to watch the effects on the lung cells. Researchers can't achieve the same realism with cells cultured in a petri dish or with lab mice--which, interestingly, are "obligate nasal breathers" that typically take in air through their noses.
the_newsbeagle writes: In a stadium in Zurich last Saturday, a new athletic competition showcased the possibilities when machine and muscle work in tandem. The Cybathlon, billed as the world's first cyborg Olympics, starred paraplegic people racing in robotic exoskeleton suits and amputees completing race courses with motorized prosthetic limbs. While the competitors struggled with mundane tasks like climbing stairs, those exertions underlined the point:
"Like the XPrize Foundation, the Cybathlon’s organizers wanted to harness the motivating power of competition to spur technology development. By filling the races with everyday activities, they hoped to encourage inventors to make devices that can eventually provide winning moves beyond the arena."
the_newsbeagle writes: Engineers know how to iterate. Whether they're working in hardware or software, they use the design-build-test cycle to get from an idea to a satisfactory product. Now synthetic biologists are applying this approach to inventing strange new life forms. Ginkgo Bioworks, a hip Boston startup that recently raised $100 million, considers itself an "organism factory." The company's bioengineers use synthetic DNA and a highly automated lab to create novel organisms, trying out thousands of variants as they work toward one that has useful properties—like a yeast that spits rose oil, which Ginkgo is developing for a French perfume company.
the_newsbeagle writes: You can now buy gadgets online that send electric current through your scalp to stimulate your brain. Why would you want to do that? Because the easy technique, called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), is being investigated as a treatment for depression, a rehab aid for stroke patients, a learning enhancer for healthy people, and for many other neuropsychiatric applications.
However, the technique is so new that companies selling brain-zapping gadgets aren't bound by any regulations, and experts are worried that consumers will end up buying devices that aren't safe or simply aren't effective. So scientists and some manufacturers recently got together to discuss the scope of the problem, and what can be done about it.
the_newsbeagle writes: Starting this fall, consumers can buy a fancy gadget called the Halo Sport (reportedly priced at $750) to stimulate their brains and try to improve their athletic performance. The device, which looks like a pair of headphones, uses a technology called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) to send current through the scalp to the motor cortex.
An IEEE Spectrum article explains the scientific rationale for this gadget, hears from the entrepreneurs behind it, and asks the obvious question: If the Halo Sport works as advertised, should its use be prohibited in professional sports? Some elite athletes have already tried it out, with the likes of Olympic skiers and Golden State Warrior basketball players openly revealing their tryouts.
the_newsbeagle writes: Neuroscientist Ted Berger has achieved some remarkable feats in his work on an implanted brain prosthetic to boost memory. Working with rats, he recorded the electrical signals associated with a specific memory from one animal's brain, then inserted that signal—and thus the memory—into another animal's brain. Working with monkeys, the implanted device enhanced the animals' recall in difficult memory tasks.
Still, it's startling to learn that a startup is ready to commercialize Berger's work, and is trying to build a memory prosthetic for humans suffering from Alzheimer's, brain injuries, and stroke. The new company, named Kernel, will fund human trials and develop electrodes that can record from and stimulate more brain cells.
the_newsbeagle writes: Iris scanning is increasingly being used for biometric identification because it’s fast, accurate, and relies on a body part that's protected and doesn’t change over time. You may have seen such systems at a border crossing recently or at a high-security facility, and the Indian government is currently collecting iris scans from all its 1.2 billion citizens to enroll them in a national ID system. But such scanners can sometimes be spoofed by a high-quality paper printout or an image stuck on a contact lens.
The same researcher who conducted that post-mortem study is also looking for solutions, and is working on iris scanners that can detect the "liveness" of an eye. His best method so far relies on the unique way each person's pupil responds to a flash of light, although he notes some problems with this approach.
the_newsbeagle writes: By gaining access to the sensors in someone's smart watch, hackers could track the person's hand movements at an ATM and figure out his/her pin. The hacker needn't be anywhere near the ATM; data can be lifted from the smart watch by either a discreet wireless sniffer or by malware on the watch that sends info to a server. This is hardly the first demonstration of the security flaws in smart watches. Last year, a research group showed that a watch's sensors can reveal keystrokes on a computer keyboard.
the_newsbeagle writes: Say you're trying to lose weight with the aid of technology, but you're not satisfied with step-counters and apps where you log your food intake. Well, here's an experimental device that could keep monitor your every chew of food. These smart glasses record activity in the muscles linked to the jaw, and can tell the difference between foods with different textures, like crunchy cookies and soft bananas.
the_newsbeagle writes: In a quest to end the dreary routine of dialysis for patients with kidney disease, three research groups are trying to build a mechanical kidney. The first team to bring its device to clinical trials built a clunky contraption that the patient wears like a utility belt. Two other teams are tinkering with fully implantable hardware. But all three could all be beat out by devotees of wetware: One such researcher is using a bioprinter to print out kidney cells into the proper 3D shape.
the_newsbeagle writes: Technologists from IBM, Intel, and Microsoft recently joined academics at a meeting hosted by IARPA (the intelligence community's R&D wing), where they discussed the feasibility of storing data in the form of twisting strands of DNA. The tech companies are interested because DNA is the densest information storage medium we know: "By converting digital files into biological material, warehouse-size storage facilities could theoretically be replaced by diminutive test tubes." And the intelligence community is interested because all their surveillance is generating a lot of data that has to be stashed somewhere.
the_newsbeagle writes: Fancy surgical robots like the da Vinci are becoming standard features in hospitals. And when surgery patients hear that a robot is going to operate on them, they often assume that the robot is fully in charge. In fact, it has zero autonomy, and makes no independent decisions. The surgeon sits in another room and uses joysticks to control every motion that the machine makes.
But now researchers in academia and industry are pushing the envelope. They're inventing smart robots that can manage discrete surgical tasks like suturing on their own, sometimes even performing better than human surgeons. Some experts compare the evolution of surgical robotics to that of self-driving cars: First we let machines take care of routine and tedious tasks, but soon enough we'll let them take the wheel entirely.
the_newsbeagle writes: The pocket-sized gadget called SCiO offers at-home chemical analysis of the stuff that makes up our daily lives — things like the food on our plates and the leaves of our houseplants. That's the official pitch, anyway. But the SCiO and similar devices may be most attractive to a certain subset of consumers who are very interested in chemistry and don't have access to real labs: namely, people who take illegal or semi-legal drugs.
the_newsbeagle writes: More than 2.5 exabytes of data is created every day, and some experts estimate that 90% of all data in the world today was created in the last two years. Clearly, storing all this data is becoming an issue. One idea is DNA data storage, in which digital files are converted into the genetic code of four nucleotides (As, Cs, Gs, and Ts). Microsoft just announced that it's testing out this idea, getting synthetic bio company Twist Bioscience to produce 10 million strands of DNA that encode some mystery file the company provided. Using DNA for long-term data storage is attractive because it's durable and efficient. For example, scientists can read the genome from a woolly mammoth hair dating from 20,000 years ago.
the_newsbeagle writes: We don't often get insider accounts of hacks against major institutions like hospitals because they immediately go into damage control mode. But at a SXSW talk, a couple of experts told tales out of school. The experts (a hospital CIO and a cybersecurity researcher) recounted incidents in which hackers downloaded patient X-rays to China, took down entire networks, fooled Harvard doctors, and more.